Positional Analysis: Cornerback

The cornerback position is the source of much frustration for the San Diego Chargers. Last year, the team fielded three former first-round picks and yet finished with the worst pass defense in the AFC. The hope is that an improved pass rush in 2009 will help the team get a better return on its investment.

No NFL team invests more in its cornerbacks than the Chargers. Quentin Jammer, Antonio Cromartie and Antoine Cason are all former first-round picks; Cletis Gordon was retained with a second-round tender as a restricted free agent; and rookie Brandon Hughes was drafted in the fifth round to provide an upgrade over last year's sixth-round pick, DeJuan Tribble.

GM A.J. Smith has no choice but to keep investing in the position. The Chargers face more passes than most teams, ranking in the top-10 in "passes against" each of the last five seasons, which puts incredible pressure on the team's cornerbacks. That's especially true when the pass rush falters, which was the case last season after Shawne Merriman's season-ending knee injury.

The cornerback who did the best job of overcoming the circumstances was Quentin Jammer, who was rock-solid all season. He consistently maintained good position and tied a career-high with 19 pass breakups. Additionally, he was surprisingly effective at turning over opposing offenses, finishing with a pair of interceptions, three forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries. (Read More)

CB Antonio Cromartie
Stephen Dunn/Getty

Opposite of Jammer is Antonio Cromartie, whose precipitous drop-off was one of the primary factors in San Diego's defensive demise. On the heels of a 10-interception season, Cromartie picked off just two passes in 2008, none after Week 3. He was routinely caught out of position and missed too many tackles. He blamed a hip injury suffered in the Season Opener for most of his struggles, but sometimes a simple lack of focus was the culprit. Case in point: The 72-yard touchdown by Reggie Wayne in the playoff game against the Indianapolis Colts.

At nickel back is Antoine Cason, the team's first-round pick in 2008. Cason played well as a rookie, although he often failed to make a play on the ball despite being in good position. He had more than 10 times as many tackles as he did pass breakups (74 to seven), which is not a good thing for someone who plays primarily in passing situations. Nonetheless, Cason made his fair share of big plays, forcing three turnovers and returning one of his two interceptions 59 yards for a touchdown.

The fourth cornerback is Cletis Gordon, who enters a make-or-break season on a one-year deal. Gordon is a smooth, athletic defender with terrific ball skills. He has the ability to be a starting cornerback, but one thing is holding him back -- confidence. Gordon often second-guesses himself and struggles unless he gets starter's repetitions. He'll likely see minimal time on defense unless there's an injury to one of the starters, in which case he would run first-string. (Read More)

Looking to stick as the fifth corner is rookie Brandon Hughes. In coverage, Hughes is comparable to Jammer. He thrives in press coverage and -- although he lacks ball skills -- is always in good position. However, Hughes lacks Jammer's dominance against the run. He will need to get bigger and stronger if he hopes to carve out a role on defense. In the interim, he'll have too earn his keep on special teams if he hopes to stay on the active roster. (Read More)

What do you think about San Diego's corners? Talk about it in the message boards.

Michael Lombardo is a member of the Pro Football Writers of America and a long-time contributor to the Scout.com network. His analysis has been published by the NFL Network, Fox Sports and MySpace Sports. He has followed the Chargers for more than 15 years and covered the team since 2003.

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